It is sometimes asked whether the evangelist H.A. Ironside was a Calvinist, or assumed that he must have been because he held to some doctrines which are often associated with Reformed theology, like Perseverance of the Saints and Imputed Righteousness. Add to this that Ironside was not afraid of using terms as the Bible uses them, and when some readers see terms like “predestination” or “election”, they assume a Calvinistic meaning. Ironside writes, for example, on John 6:37, “You say you do not believe in election or predestination. Then you will have to tear a number of pages out of your Bible, for there are many of them that magnify God’s sovereign electing grace.” If we stopped there, we might say, “Ah ha! A Calvinist afterall!” But keep reading! Ironside continues:
But do not misunderstand them. Nowhere in the Bible are we told that God has predetermined before man is born that he will be lost or saved, but Scripture says, “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Romans 8:29). Moody was right when he used to say that, “The ‘whosoever wills’ are the elect and the ‘whosoever won’ts,’ the non-elect.”
Since it is commonly known that Ironside held to Perseverance of the Saints (with Calvinists) and to Unlimited Atonement (with Arminians, see: Harry A Ironside, “He ‘gave Himself’” and Harry A Ironside, “For God So Loved the World That . . . WHOSOEVER!”), below I will provide a sampling of his writings on the other three points of The Five Articles of Remonstrance (with the corresponding Calvinist point from TULIP in brackets), Total Depravity, Prevenient Grace, and Election, to demonstrate that, though he did sound Calvinistic at times, H.A. Ironside was in agreement with Arminianism, rather than Calvinism, on these points. (For a short summary of the 5 articles of remonstrance, click here)
TOTAL DEPRAVITY (Total Depravity)
Ironside addresses this doctrine explicitly in his book, Illustrations of Bible Truth (1945, Public Domain) where, under the heading “Total Depravity”, he writes:
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately (incurably) wicked” (Jer. 17:9).
Many object to the doctrine of total depravity on the ground that all men are capable of some good even if unsaved. All of us recognize the value of decency in behavior, of a kindly spirit, of generosity in caring for the needy, and similar virtues, which are frequently seen in unconverted and even positively godless men and women. How, then, it is asked, can they be said to be totally depraved? Dr. Joseph Cook, the great Boston lecturer of the latter half of the nineteenth century, answers this question with the following illustration:
He said he had in his home a very beautiful and valuable clock. It had an exceedingly handsome case, a very fine set of works, a nice appearing dial and elegantly finished hands. It was altogether a good clock to look upon but it had one fault. It simply would not, or could not, keep time. It had been gone over by many different clock-makers, but no one had been able to correct this fault. As a timepiece it was totally depraved!
Is not this like man, even at his best, if he has not been born again? There may be much about him that others can admire, but he is positively unable to do the will of the Lord, because his heart is utterly estranged from God, and therefore so far as holiness is concerned, he is totally depraved. Only the new birth—regeneration by the Word and Spirit of God—can enable him to keep in line with the divine will as laid down in the Holy Scriptures. However righteous he may appear in the eyes of his fellows, because of this fatal defect all his righteousness is as filthy rags in the sight of God.
One place in his commentaries where he addresses the doctrine of Total Depravity by name is in his Notes on Mark 7 (1948, Public Domain). Commenting on verses 14-23 he writes:
“That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man”-that is, those things which come from his heart defile him, for the heart itself is like a nest of unclean birds. “Out of the heart… proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness.” What a list! Who can say that these things have never had any place whatever in his heart? Of course there are some to whom several of these things are thoroughly repugnant, and yet every man is capable of falling into every sin here mentioned if he but allows his mind to dwell on evil thoughts. There are men who deny the depravity of the natural man, but they might well consider the list set forth here and honestly answer the question, Have none of these things a place in my heart?
When we speak of the total depravity of the natural man, we do not mean necessarily that all men are guilty of all the sins enumerated here. We do mean that all men are by nature out of touch with God and that the capacity for all these sins is found in all their hearts.
A further example can be found in his book, Except Ye Repent (1937, Public Domain), where he writes:
Of all who are unsaved we read, “There is none that doeth good, no, not one.” Disciples of Christ, on the other hand, are exhorted so to walk and speak that men may see their good works and glorify their Father which is in heaven. We are “created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” Well has the hymn writer declared:
“I would not work my soul to save, That work my Lord has done;
But I would work like any slave For love of God’s dear Son.”
Good works are life works — inwrought by the Lord Himself, who works in us — both the willing and the doing of His good pleasure. Evil works are the wicked ways of the unregenerate man. They are but the manifestation in outward behavior of the evil nature that is estranged from God and can only bring forth bad fruit. The world hated Jesus because He testified of it that its works were evil. He showed the source of all this to be the heart, out of which sin proceeds as foul water from a polluted fountain. Good resolutions, attempted reformation, pious intentions, are alike powerless to change this. The prophet asks: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil” (Jer. 13:23). The trouble is too deep seated for human effort to change it. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately [or, incurably] wicked: who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9). Until the sinner receives a new heart his works can only be evil continually. (p. 39)
In the same book Ironside states that “faith is the gift of God as certainly as all else connected with salvation” (p. 31), and that even repentance is impossible without “the inwrought work of the Holy Spirit” (p 17).
Prevenient Grace ( vs. irresistible grace)
^Full Assurance (1937)
Like Arminians, while Ironside held firmly to Total Depravity, he departed from Calvinists on the doctrines of Irresistible Grace and Election.
“Through the Spirit’s sanctification-that is, His separating work, men are awakened and brought to see their need of Christ.” — Commentary on 1 Peter
It is clear from Ironside’s writings that he held to both the need for the inward work of the Holy Spirit, and also that this work is resistible. Rather than calling this “prevenient grace”, however, Ironside prefers the terms “the convicting work of the Spirit of God” or “the sanctification of the Spirit” — terms that Scripture itself uses.
In his Commentary on 2 Corinthians 1 (1937, Public Domain), he writes:
First of all, no one would ever come to Christ if it were not for the convicting, sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit of God. Unless the Spirit of God awakens a man, unless the Spirit of God brings him to see his lost condition, convicts him of the tremendous truths of Holy Scripture, no man would ever of himself turn to Christ. That is a very solemn fact, but it is a fact nevertheless. “It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy” (Romans 9:16). On the other hand, it is quite possible for the Spirit of God to operate in convicting power on the heart of man and yet that man do what the Jews did in Stephen’s day. It is written of them, “Ye do always resist the Holy Ghost” (Acts 7:51). So it is possible to be convicted by the Spirit and yet to resist the Spirit. But there must be the convicting work of the Spirit of God or no one would ever come to Christ. Jesus Christ said, “Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away; for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you. And when he is come, he will convince [or convict] the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (John 16:7-8).
In Chapter 5 “Sanctification”, of Great Words of the Gospel (1944, Public Domain), he writes:
First, then, sanctification by the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:16). Paul asks the Christians at Rome to pray for him as he ministers Jesus Christ to the Gentiles: “Ministering the gospel of God, that the offering up of the Gentiles might be acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Ghost” […] That is, as one goes to the nations preaching the gospel, it is the Holy Spirit who prepares people to receive that gospel.
In the second chapter of II Thessalonians this comes out very clearly in verse 13:
But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth.
Notice the order there: Sanctification by the Spirit, then belief of the truth. One might say definitely that no one would ever believe the word of the truth of the gospel, unless he were first sanctified by the Holy Spirit. In other words, it is the Holy Spirit who works in the hearts and minds of people, preparing them for the reception of the Gospel. That is why we who go forth to preach the gospel should spend much time in prayer before we appear in public to present the Word, asking God to prepare the hearts of our hearers that the Word may be as seed sown in good soil. That preparation of the heart which is from the Lord is the sanctification of the Spirit here referred to.
In the sixth chapter of I Corinthians, verse 11, after having told of the wicked lives that unsaved men and women live, the apostle says,
And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.
Notice the order there: washed, sanctified, justified. That is, the Word of God is applied to the heart and conscience for cleansing; the Holy Spirit arouses the man, sets him apart from the mass of mankind, makes him ready to receive the Word; and receiving the Word, he is justified.
Finally, in his book, Full Assurance (1937, Public Domain), he answers the objection, “But the Bible says faith is the gift of God and that all men have not faith; perhaps it is not the will of God to give me saving faith“, writing:
Faith is the gift of God in this sense, that only through His Word is it received. “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”
All men may have faith if they will: but alas, many refuse to hear the Word of God, so they are left in their unbelief.
The Holy Spirit presents the Word, but one may resist His gracious influence. On the other hand, one may listen to the Word and believe it. That is faith. It is God’s gift, it is true, because given through His Word.
ELECTION IN CHRIST ( vs. unconditional election)
“There are two things that are absolutely clear in Scripture—one is that God by His foreknowledge has predestinated all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ “to be conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:29). Predestination is never to heaven nor yet to hell; but always to special privilege in and with Christ. All who believe in Him were chosen in Christ “before the foundation of the world.” — What’s the Answer? (1944)
On the doctrine of election, Ironside taught (along with the early church, Arminius, and modern “Reformation Arminians”) that election is based on God’s foreknowledge of those who would believe in Christ. In his commentary on Ephesians 1 (1937, Public Domain) he explains:
Then listen to the apostle Peter, “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace unto you, and peace, be multiplied” (1 Peter 1:2). There you have exactly the same order [as in 2 Thessalonians 2:13]. God the Father foreknew us from eternity, but it was up to us whether or not we would yield to Christ. When we did yield in the obedience of faith, we took our places beneath the sprinkled blood of Jesus and our salvation was eternally assured. People try sometimes to put the whole responsibility on God and say, “If God has not chosen me, I cannot be saved.” If you will trust in Christ, you may know that God has chosen you.
[…Ironside then includes a helpful example of foreknowledge and human responsibility from Acts 27, but I will exclude it here for the sake of length…]
Look at Ephesians 1:4, “According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him.” God, who foresaw all who would put their trust in Christ, provided a means whereby all our sin and iniquity could be paid for, in order that we might be presented holy and without blame before Him. This, of course, involves the work of the cross. Redemption was not an afterthought with God. It was all provided for when He decided to bring into existence creatures who could give Him voluntary love and service.
[…] He could have created humanity in such a way that it could not have deviated from the right path. But God’s determination to create a man or woman who could choose to give Him loyal obedience, loving service, and voluntary devotion, necessitated the creation of men and women who could turn away from God if they wanted to and refuse to obey Him if they so desired. Otherwise there would have been no freedom in their love, devotion, reverence, and affection. God was willing to take all the risk that He did take in order to have beings in this universe who would give Him glad and free-hearted love and devotion. So when sin came in, the Savior was given, and the Seed of the woman has bruised the serpent’s head. Now through the work of Christ, God can present us in His glorious presence holy and without blame in Him. It is not what we are naturally in ourselves, but what we are in Christ Jesus.
Now notice in Ephesians 1:5 we have another word that troubles people. We read, “In love having predestinated us.” You will notice that I began reading Ephesians 1:5 with the last part of verse Ephesians 1:4. I ended verse Ephesians 1:4 with the word him-“That we should be holy and without blame before him.” The King James version ends verse 4 this way: “That we should be holy and without blame before him in love.” But I believe a better translation is to add the phrase, “in love,” to the beginning of verse Ephesians 1:5 : “In love having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will.” One is not so afraid of the word predestinated when it is preceded by the word love. There is no arbitrariness there, but it is all “in love.” Predestination is a manifestation of the love of the Father. As it is God who chose us in grace, it is the Father who had predestinated us to the adoption of children. Nowhere in the Bible are people ever predestined to go to Hell, and nowhere are people simply predestined to go to Heaven. Look it up and see. We are chosen in Christ to share His glory for eternity, but predestination is always to some special place of blessing.
In Romans 8:29 we read: “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.” Predestined to what? Predestined “to be conformed to the image of his Son.” You see, predestination is not God from eternity saying, “This man goes to Heaven and this man to Hell.” No, but predestination teaches me that when I have believed in Christ and trusted Him as my Savior, I may know on the authority of God that it is settled forever that some day I am to become exactly like my Savior.
On other passages, Ironside sometimes takes a more Corporate, election to service, view. For example, on Romans 9 (1927, Public Domain), he writes:
[…] the apostle now proceeds to show that God has ever acted on the principle of sovereign grace. All the special privileges that Israel had enjoyed were to be attributed to this principle. God took them out from among the nations as an elect people, separating them to Himself. But He ever had in mind a regenerated people as the people of the promise. Not all who were born of Israel’s blood belonged to Israel, as recognized by God. Neither because of the natural seed of Abraham were they necessarily children of promise. In electing grace God had said to Abraham, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called.” He chose to pass over Ishmael, the man born after the flesh, and take up Isaac, whose birth was miraculous. In this He illustrates the principle that “they which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God. Children of promise are counted for the seed.”
Then again, in the case of the children of Isaac and Rebecca, we see the same principle of electing grace illustrated. We are told that:
“(For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of Him that calleth;) It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (vers. Romans 9:11-13).
What a tremendous amount of needless controversy has raged about these verses! Yet how plain and simple they are, viewed in the light of God’s dispensational dealings. There is no question here of predestination to heaven or reprobation to hell; in fact, eternal issues do not really come in throughout this chapter, although, of course, they naturally follow as the result of the use or abuse of God-given privileges. But we are not told here, nor anywhere else, that before children are born it is God’s purpose to send one to heaven and another to hell; to save one by grace, notwithstanding all his evil works, and to condemn the other to perdition, notwithstanding all his yearnings for something higher and nobler than he has yet found. The passage has to do entirely with privilege here on earth. It was the purpose of God that Jacob should be the father of the nation of Israel, and that through him the promised Seed, our Lord Jesus Christ, should come into the world. He had also pre-determined that Esau should be a man of the wilderness- the father of a nation of nomads, as the Edomites have ever been.